In psychology, extinction refers to the gradual weakening of a conditioned response that results in the behavior decreasing or disappearing.
In classical conditioning, this happens when a conditioned stimulus is no longer paired with an unconditioned stimulus.
In operant conditioning, extinction can occur if the trained behavior is no longer reinforced or if the type of reinforcement used is no longer rewarding.
Extinction in Classical Conditioning
Consider this example of extinction in classical conditioning.
If the smell of food (the unconditioned stimulus) had been paired with the sound of a whistle (the conditioned stimulus), it would eventually come to evoke the conditioned response of hunger. However, if the unconditioned stimulus (the smell of food) was no longer paired with the conditioned stimulus (the whistle), then the conditioned response (hunger) would eventually disappear.
Extinction in Operant Conditioning
Consider this example of extinction in operant conditioning:
A teacher has been using positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior in her classroom. When a student raises his or her hand instead of shouting out the answers, the teacher rewards the student with a fruit-flavored candy. After several days of this, the children become sick of the candy, and stop raising their hands. Because the children have become satiated and the candy is no longer rewarding, extinction of the trained behavior has occurred.
Does the Response Really Disappear?
In research on classical conditioning, Pavlov found that when extinction occurs, it does not mean that the subject returns to their unconditioned state. Allowing several hours or even days to elapse after a response has been extinguished can result in spontaneous recovery of the response. Spontaneous recovery refers to the sudden reappearance of a previously extinct response.
In his research on operant conditioning, Skinner discovered that how and when a behavior is reinforced could influence how resistant it was to extinction. He found that a partial schedule of reinforcement (reinforcing a behavior only part of the time) helped reduce the chances of extinction.
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Pavlov, I. (1927). Conditioned reflexes: An investigation of the physiological activity of the cerebral cortex. (G. V. Anrep, Trans.). New York: Dover. http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Pavlov/index.htm
Skinner, B. F. (1956). A case history in scientific method. American Psychologist, 11, 221-233.